Monday, March 8, 2010

Backstory, The Story Behind A TWIST IN TIME, by Susan Squires

The novels of New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Susan Squires are often praised for their deftly depicted characters, lush historical settings, clever paranormal mythology and captivating storytelling, so it’s no surprise readers eagerly await each new release. Her debut, DANEGELD, won the Holt Medallion for best first book, the Golden Heart Contest in 2000 for best paranormal romance, as well as numerous regional RWA contests. She’s gone on to write twelve more novels, including the popular Companion series of vampire tales, which began with the 2002 release of SACRAMENT, winner of that year’s PRISM award for dark paranormal.

This month she delivers A TWIST IN TIME, the ninth Companion series book, which continues to build on the time-travel dimension she introduced in her September release, TIME FOR ETERNITY.

What was the inspiration for this novel?

I have been enjoying writing my time travel series a great deal. I was talking to my editor about the next in the series, and she said, why don’t you bring someone forward, instead of sending someone back? (I have a great editor at St. Martins, Jennifer Enderlin). I got very excited about that. (I have a soft spot for Kate and Leopold.) So, I thought about what time periods I already knew to reduce the research. I know Dark Age Britain quite well from my first novel, DANEGELD, and my fourth, DANELAW. I spent quite a bit of time in England researching the Viking age. So I brought a Viking warrior forward into modern day San Francisco. I had a character that appears right at the end of DANELAW, who has some magic of his own. I concocted some villains who wanted the time machine for their own dire purposes, and I made the heroine a bookseller – who normally would have nothing in common with a Viking. I thought it would be fun for a rare bookseller to have a very Viking male on her hands. I also knew that the Viking would speak Old English as well as Old Norse (since he was living in Anglo Saxon England as a conqueror) and maybe even Latin, the language of the priests who were just coming into England in 986 AD. What was most fun was the fact that they speak the same language (English), just separated by time, so that they realize only slowly that they can communicate. I sat with my Old English dictionary and picked out words they would have in common. That kept me interested for nine months. And I figured out half way through that they were going to have to sail. I studied up, but my neighbor, who teaches sailing for the city of Redondo Beach, took me out in some swells and I learned to sail his 25 foot sailboat. What a blast.

What was your writing process? Did you outline, or do you write by the seat of your pants?

I used to write by the seat of my pants. Unfortunately, while my first editor allowed that, my current editor panicked. She now requires that I submit a brief (two pages?) outline, and has structured my contracts to require it. I get paid ten percent of my advance when she approves it. Smart woman. I thought I couldn’t write if I worked it out first, but really it saves me a lot of time and ensures that I can turn my books in on time.

How much time do you spend writing each week?

It depends on what stage I’m in. If I am working on that synopsis, I can work for very long at a time. Once I get going, I work two nights a week and Saturdays. If I’m traveling for the day job, I write in hotels at night, and in the center seats of the plane if necessary.

How do you get yourself in a writing frame of mind?

Oh, my. When you actually have a deadline and a big day job, you don’t get the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike. I use odd times in the day to plan what I will write next (as I’m falling asleep? in the shower?). By the time I come to my planned writing time, I know what I’m doing. I sit down somewhere with my laptop, anywhere will do, though I need relative quiet. Then I read a few paragraphs of what I’d written before to gather momentum (fixing a little as I read) and get to it.

What was the best advice you’ve received about writing?

There are so many pieces of good advice. Don’t give up. (I did that for a while when I was trying to get published.) Show don’t tell—that sort of thing. The advice I give myself is “Just do it.” You can’t be a writer without writing. A lot. Even if you can’t do it every day (I certainly can’t.) And the most startling thing my editor ever said to me is “The first chapter is often the author clearing her throat and getting ready to tell the story.” Her point was—cut to the chase and start fast and well into the story. That one sticks with me.

What is something you know now about writing or publishing in general that you wish you had known when you started?

I actually think you can know too much about publishing when you are trying to get started. That line from “Star Wars”—“Never tell me the odds, kid”—comes to mind. I do think I caused myself a lot of heartache by trying to get published before I really knew how to write. I had to go back and learn that before I was ready.

How do you overcome writer’s block, or any rough patch as you’re working on a story?

When I get stuck (and for me it happens about page 100 in every book), I step away from it for a day or two and try to think what I don’t know that is stopping me from continuing. Often it’s that I don’t know the characters well enough or I haven’t figured out what the villain would really do to drive the middle of the book. I’m a big believer in trying to find the right question to ask yourself. Your subconscious mind will answer those questions. It’s important to ask positive questions. (Why does this book suck is not positive. Your subconscious mind will answer that one, too, but the answers won’t help you get started again—they’ll just depress you.) So questions like, What would the character do? Why does the character have this trait? How can I ramp up the tension? What does the villain really want and why? Those help you get started again. Try asking questions. It’s never failed me yet.

Do you seek any feedback before submitting your manuscript?

I don’t work with a critique group. I used to, and it was helpful to hone my craft and get feedback. I recommend it highly as you’re starting out. But after a while, submitting a few pages a week for people to read wasn’t keeping up to the pace I needed to keep. I also felt I had gotten what the group had to give me. As I became surer of my direction, the conflicting comments were drawing me off base. I worried that if I incorporated all of them, I would write “generic book,” rather than a unique vision. So now, when I’m in the second draft, I give the book to my husband, Harry. I’m so lucky that he’s a talented writer in his own right. He gives it a quick read through for individual problems and assesses how the whole story arc works. I give him a deadline, by the way. I leave myself enough time to incorporate his comments, and then submit. My editor is my next critique partner. She always has comments!

When your creative batteries run low, do you have any tricks or techniques for jump-starting them and staying motivated?

There’s nothing like having a deadline for motivation! So before I was on contract with a publishing house, I would give myself deadlines. Then I would work out how much I had to do each week to meet them. It’s really important to set small, incremental goals, not just a big one some time in the distance. I still do that. Two months to figure it out, six months to write it at X number of pages a week, with some time built in for being stuck, and a month to revise it. If your creative batteries are low, try to go back to something you really want to write, no matter how wild it is. That will cook in your subconscious and percolate up into something fresh.

What are five of your favorite novels?

I hate these questions. But at least you gave me five. I love the Patrick O”Brian Master and Commander series (all twenty—I’m counting them as one). Great studies in character. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series (ditto counting as one.) I’ve been a fan since the beginning. Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton family Regencies—funny and light, and the first chapter of ON THE WAY TO THE WEDDING is a great example of show don’t tell. Any James Lee Burke mystery. Who says that hard-boiled mysteries can’t be art? And I love Georgette Heyer. She got me started. Uh, oh. Only five? What about Jane Austin and James Crais and Janet Evanovich and ....
What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

It’s a toss up between Steven King’s ON WRITING for the feel of being a writer, and James Frey’s HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL for simple, easy directions.

What books are currently on your to-be-read list?

Well, I’m a judge for the Ritas, so I have seven of those before mid-March. I’m in the middle of Cormac McCarthy”s The Road--beautiful writing.

For more information about Susan Squires and her books, visit

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